Postcolonialism in an Age of Globalization: Opening International Relations Theory to Identities in Movement

By McCormack, Brian | Alternatives: Global, Local, Political, January-March 2002 | Go to article overview

Postcolonialism in an Age of Globalization: Opening International Relations Theory to Identities in Movement


McCormack, Brian, Alternatives: Global, Local, Political


The point of theory, it seems, is to attempt to stop time, perhaps as if it was a dependent variable, and assemble the disparate elements of understanding into statements, or even a statement--or even a single word--that theorists would hope would capture the movement of the moment. Today, at this moment of global movement, we are assembled to reflect on our currency with and for one another. Many of us have attempted to stake a claim to having achieved perhaps the ultimate act of theorizing the movement of our moment by pronouncing the one word, globalization, that accomplishes the task of theory. (l) The word is effective since it seems to strike a responsive chord in all of us. In fact, the word is more than this: globalization is a name that is both proper and common.

Each of us names globalization as a proper noun that is beyond critique (we all know what globalization is) because it enfolds within it an entire universe of possibility. We also name globalization as common nouns, subject to interpretation--to translation according to our presumably diverse languages of theory. We name globalization as if it is beyond question, and as if it is subject to question. Globalization says more than the name, just as it says, quite simply, the name. (2) The difficulty that ensues from naming globalization is that the conflict between the universality of the proper noun and the particularity of the common nouns that come of our interpretations (our translations) bears a double injunction: we are constrained by the argued-for sovereignty of the name and, presumably, liberated by the essential contestations that each of us brings to the name. (3)

Another recently named phenomenon that has begun to occupy an albeit lower place in the pantheon of theoretical names is postcolonialism. Like globalization, postcolonialism also encompasses a very wide range of theoretical considerations. It is also subject to the double imperative of naming. But the two words/names--globalization and postcolonialism--are made to occupy different places in our theoretical pantheon. One could argue that postcolonialism and globalization suggest alternate categories of identity construction and maintenance. A theorist of globalization might, for example, point to blurred boundaries in which virtual reality and free markets transcend the space of the idea of sovereignty. A theorist of postcolonialism might point to ongoing colonialist practices that blur boundaries in which past histories are in confluence with current postcolonial conditions to transcend the time of the idea of sovereignty.

If one assumes the incommensurability of the two concepts--the two names--on the basis of different categories of analysis, one should also acknowledge the need to assume their commensurability on similar themes; for example, of sovereignty. Both globalization and postcolonialism are "transcendent" of a third name: sovereignty. If we try to make sense of globalization or postcolonialism, we can apparently do so only in terms of the current limits of discourse.

Paradoxically, however, the neologisms of the present (globalization and postcolonialism, for example) are conceivable only in terms of the neologisms of the past. Sovereignty is only one of those ancient neologisms that have come to constitute our "current thinking": power, movement, authority, anarchy, agency, order, norms, and so on--these, too, are our guides. The result can be as limiting as the content that one might assign to those names through definition, or as illuminating as the potentially endless contestations that those names recommend. I shall want to recommend the illumination of contestation over the limitation of definition. Rather than proceed, as theorists all too often do, by straining to simplify or mitigate contestations, I welcome and encourage those contestations and recommend that the radical democratization of the names we give to global life should become the central task of theory.

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Postcolonialism in an Age of Globalization: Opening International Relations Theory to Identities in Movement
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